African helmers get boost at Rotterdam

Fest spotlights regional filmmakers

Rotterdam is developing an obsession with Africa. Having set out to discover its cinema for the 2010 edition, the festival has followed up with a project to turn African filmmakers onto low-budget methods developed in Asia.

It was an easy connection to make. As well as directing the African project, Gertjan Zuilhof is one of Rotterdam’s Asian programmers, so he has seen how young filmmakers from Malaysia and the Philippines make very low-budget digital movies.

“I thought that the Africans could learn from this kind of filmmaking. How you can make a feature-length fiction movie for, say, ?20,000 ($26,000),” Zuilhof says.

Nigeria’s commercial film industry has gone a long way down this track, but the digital approach is less familiar to the independent filmmakers Rotterdam favors. They face limits on cash and equipment, and on controls concerning the films they can make if funds come from development foundations.

“They can get some money for a 20-minute short film, even a fiction short, but then the theme has to be HIV or something like that. In subject matter, in fact, they are hardly ever free,” Zuilhof says.

While scouting for films in 2009, Zuilhof took non-African filmmakers with him, producing a program of 12 pics for the 2010 festival. Last year he planned another trip, taking African directors to China.

There they workshopped digital methods at Li Xianting Film School, on the outskirts of Beijing, and made films with the support of the fest’s Hubert Bals Fund. Each was paired with a Chinese-speaking filmmaker from the region, who acted as mentor, interpreter and cultural guide. This kind of international contact is another thing African filmmakers often miss out on.

Zuilhof also chose China because of the country’s growing economic power in Africa. “It’s one of the common themes for Africans at the moment, that their continent is being taken over again, so I thought this would interest them.” The resulting films will screen in this year’s fest.

Zuilhof is adamant that the impoverished state of African cinema requires active intervention, even from film festivals.

“Just going there to watch films doesn’t make much sense,” he says. “If you want to do something about it, you have to organize these kinds of projects: commission films, do workshops, find the people who are talented and create a situation where they can do something.”

This requires resources that most festivals don’t have. “The budget I had for these movies is very small, but of course it’s much more than just showing a movie in a festival or inviting the director for a Q&A.”

It’s not certain that Rotterdam will have the funds to continue this program, although Zuilhof is already looking ahead. “My idea for next year would be to go with some Chinese filmmakers to Africa, to team them up with African filmmakers and make a couple of movies,” he says. “There is an interest from Chinese filmmakers to go to Africa to see what the other Chinese are actually doing there.”

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